I didn’t know exactly when the game would start, so I showed up shortly after the junior varsity contest tipped off. That’s when I noticed my broadcast position was less than ideal – on the stage behind one of the baskets. A center-court location would’ve been preferable, but I wasn’t nervous; I’d been preparing to call basketball games for quite some time and I was certain I was ready. I’d spoken briefly with Kalamazoo Christian High School’s head coach and I knew the starters. I didn’t have any statistics, but it was a high school game and the first game of the season, so I didn’t think statistics would matter much. Also, I was working with an analyst, who would help fill in the gaps.
The first few minutes of the game were a bit of a struggle, because I was still learning the players on both teams. And, it was even harder to identify the combatants when they were on the opposite end of the floor from our broadcast position. But, as the seconds ticked off of Kalamazoo Christian’s brand new purple scoreboard, I was starting to get comfortable.
Then, Kalamazoo Christian substituted.
That season, Kalamazoo Christian felt they had ten players who could start for them. Of course, you can only have half that number on the court at a given time, so they decided to break up that group of ten into a first unit and a second unit; each unit would always play together. The head coach, wary of revealing too much to someone he’d just met, didn’t tell me about these two units in our pre-game chat. If Kalamazoo Christian subbed in a more traditional fashion – one or two guys in the game here, another guy in the game there – I would’ve had an easier adjustment. Instead, five new players came in at once. Fortunately, my broadcast partner – who had been Kalamazoo Christian’s play-by-play broadcaster the previous few seasons before sliding into the analyst’s chair upon my arrival – helped me out and disaster was averted.
That game took place nine years ago this December. And, I’ve been calling basketball ever since.
Even though that game in a tiny gym with wooden, fold out bleachers in the southwest corner of Michigan was my first on-air basketball broadcast, I’d been practicing for several years. During my junior year at Syracuse University, I decided to get serious about pursuing a career in play-by-play. Syracuse is known as a play-by-play broadcaster factory but WAER, the on-campus radio station where many of those play-by-players got their start, required students to start working their way up the station’s hierarchy as freshmen before (hopefully) getting a chance to call a handful of Syracuse basketball and/or football games as upperclassmen. Play-by-play wasn’t on my radar for much of my first two years of college – I thought I wanted to be a television sports anchor – so I never considered working at WAER and, by my junior year, it was too late for me to get a chance to do play-by-play there. Instead, I purchased tickets for seats in the upper reaches of the Carrier Dome, where I would call basketball games into my tape recorder. One of the first games I remember doing was a contest against Seton Hall, which Syracuse’s Allen Griffin won with a 15-foot jumper in the closing seconds. I was disappointed when I listened back to the tape and heard how out-of-breath and raspy I sounded. My voice was very close to a yell in the final minutes of that close game and I sounded like an unabashed Syracuse fan who was calling one of their games, which is what I was.
That tape recorder continued to get a workout after I graduated from Syracuse. That first winter in the “real world” was spent in living at home in New York City, where I was either working, visiting my girlfriend in Massachusetts or doing basketball play-by-play into my tape recorder. I lived a 20-minute bus ride from Manhattan College, which had one of the best mid-major teams in the country that year and I was a frequent fixture in the top row of Manhattan’s Draddy Gymnasium bleachers, my recorder and notes in tow. Columbia University’s basketball team wasn’t nearly as good, but their campus was easy to get to via subway after work, so I often found myself calling many of their games as well. I would prep for games at work, using the team websites for statistics and player information. I would turn a manila folder into my spotting chart – a technique I learned from Dave Pasch, one of my adjunct professors in college, who doubled as the radio voice of Syracuse basketball and football. Player numbers were written on the folder in black Sharpie and all other information was copiously scribbled in black ink; each team got one half of the manila folder. A yellow legal pad was used to write down each team’s schedule and other notes. Since I didn’t have access to in-game statistics,I taught myself how to keep track of each player’s points and fouls on the folder during games.
I employed the same manila-folder-and-legal-pad system when I started doing Kalamazoo Christian’s games, except high school teams didn’t have websites with statistics and player notes, something I wasn’t prepared for. But, after that first game, I got better. I started photocopying all of the high school basketball box scores in the local paper and would file them away, so I’d have some basic statistics for every team. Before games, I would look for the opposing coach and ask him for his starting lineup, key reserves and basic information about his squad. I also served as an analyst on the college basketball broadcasts for Division III Kalamazoo College, which helped me to see the floor better and pick out some of the nuances in team defense and offense, especially away from the ball. And, as I did more Kalamazoo Christian games, it became easier to see what was happening off the ball; I started noticing who was setting screens and what players were doing to get into proper position to rebound or shoot before the ball came their way. My confidence grew, and I realized I had a chance to become a very competent basketball voice.
I really came into my own as a basketball play-by-play broadcaster my first winter in Binghamton, New York. I moved there from Kalamazoo to call baseball but, I was employed by the team just for the season, rather than year-round by the radio station, like I was in Kalamazoo. I landed a job calling high school basketball for a small-town radio station outside of Binghamton, but that wasn’t going to be enough to pay the bills. I was working in pizza delivery when I learned that The College of St. Rose – a Division II school two hours away, in Albany – had just lost their play-by-play broadcaster about two weeks before the start of their season. On a whim, I left a phone message for St. Rose’s athletic director and, two days later, their sports information director called me. After overnighting a CD with clips of my Kalamazoo Christian basketball play-by-play and an in-person meeting, I was hired and my pizza delivery days were over. Most of St. Rose’s basketball games were part of doubleheaders – the women would tip off first, and the men’s game would follow a half-hour after the women’s contest was done – and they wanted me to call all of their men’s and women’s games. Fortunately, St. Rose’s games didn’t conflict with the high school games I’d already agreed to do, but it was still a hectic schedule. I usually called a high school game on Friday night before waking up early on Saturday morning to drive at least two hours to call a pair of St. Rose’s games. One Saturday, I called a St. Rose doubleheader in the afternoon before driving back to the Binghamton area to do a high school basketball playoff game that night. When I wasn’t calling a game, I was traveling to one or preparing for another. That winter, I did about 5-6 games a week and wound up calling 75 basketball games, all of them solo. However, when the season ended, I wasn’t burned out; I was actually energized because I realized that, not only could I call a decent game, but I loved calling basketball. Baseball will always be my favorite sport to broadcast, but I now realized that basketball was a close second.
The following year, I was prepared for another hectic winter of calling basketball when I learned Division I Binghamton University needed a women’s basketball broadcaster. Thanks to contacts I’d cultivated, I was the top candidate for the job. By the end of my interview, I was hired, and I called Binghamton women’s basketball for four years, eventually giving up the gig calling high school games (Instead, I refereed high school and middle school basketball games, which increased my understanding of the game and the rules even further). Cutting back to “only” 30 or so games a year still proved enjoyable.
Wednesday, I start my third year as the voice of University of Nebraska Omaha basketball and my tenth year overall calling basketball. Since there’s more information available, college basketball games easier to call than high school games. Over the years, I’ve learned developing a good relationship with your team’s head coach is invaluable. So is planning ahead and preparing for games in advance, especially if you have a stretch of three or four games in a seven-to-ten day period. Great preparation will lead to me being able to drop the right anecdote or statistic at the right time, which is crucial in basketball play-by-play, since there are few breaks in the action.
Even though a lot has changed since that first game in Kalamazoo, I still get excited whenever I put on a headset and I still look forward to the moment when the ball is thrown into the air for the opening tip. Hopefully, that excitement lasts for a long time.Follow @raford3